Snooze and Lose
The news this month is bad news. Not a good way to start an inspirational column for sure, but it’s a fact, and I’m talking about swordfish being opened up for commercial longline fishing off Florida’s east coast.
Sixteen years ago longlines were banned in the critical habitat and nursery areas off Florida. The fish were in bad shape. The nursery areas in the Atlantic were literally being fished to death.
I remember back then, just before the closure, a photo crossed my desk of a commercial fisherman in Key West carrying a 5-gallon white plastic bucket stuffed full of swordfish pups, heads in the bucket and their tails sticking out the top. That was the state of the fishery at the time.
With the closure to longlining in 2001, the stocks began to rebound, and over the ensuing years, swordfish became the poster child for stock recoveries under wise management. The swordfishing off Florida gained a global reputation, drawing anglers from around the world. As well as the conservation victory, the fishery created a substantial economic engine. The benefits of eliminating pelagic longlines came fast and certain.
While not everyone goes swordfishing, everyone can, with a reasonable expectation of success. Anyone able to scrape up the cash for a charter — or put in the time learning the techniques — stands a good chance of catching one of the most spectacular big-game fish in the world. It’s a vibrant fishery we’d almost begun to take for granted.
This past summer, the Office of Highly Migratory Species, a division of NOAA, granted a pelagic longline permit to a fleet of six boats to fish the closed zones under the guise of research.
Any reasonable person surmises we don’t need to bring back longlines to determine the gear has a devastating effect on swordfish. We’ve already proven that to ourselves and everyone else. Even ICCAT, the stodgiest of management organizations, has declared western Atlantic swordfish recovered.
And swordfish aren’t the only fish that suffer under assault from this gear. It’s indiscriminate, and longlines kill sailfish, marlin, sharks and turtles, along with the targeted species.
Reintroducing lethal gear on a recovered fishery is akin to climbing to 35,000 feet and then cutting your engines.
The exempted fishing permit has been granted for a three-year period, subject to approval every year. Activists on the issue are unsure whether this can be stopped or not in the first year. It may be too late to change that. But the annual permit renewals are not a given.
Whether you are a swordfisherman, or would like to be, or may never get the chance, this permitting procedure and policy reversal represent a threat to all our management efforts. The exempted permit, vigorously opposed by the recreational fishing community as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, not only stands as a betrayal of public sentiment, but it also may well set a precedent for rolling back any number of other successful management programs in other places.
This procedure, if institutionalized, could be devastating to fisheries we’ve fought to preserve and all the gains we’ve made. That’s why it’s important now to raise our voices. Hackneyed as it may sound, it’s time to call your congressmen or go online and register your opinion. The Billfish Foundation website (billfish.org) and the American Sportfishing Association both have a simple formatted page to register your opinion. This is a critical issue now and will be again, when the permit comes up for renewal.